This is particularly baffling because soccer is a British word, coined around the end of the 19th century in Oxford, and widely used in Britain until the 1980s, as a search through newspaper archives and book titles demonstrates.
Oscar Wilde quipped that “we have really everything in common with America nowadays except, of course, language” — but as far as we know, nobody sells T-shirts embroidered with the slogan “It’s Suspenders, Not Braces,” and transatlantic relations have remained peaceful when it comes to “sweaters” and “jumpers,” “trucks” and “lorries,” and “dessert” and “pudding.”
As we argue in our recent book, soccer, by contrast, is in a category of its own: an outcast word, exiled from its native soil, reviled, declared foreign, struck from collective memory. There is, as far as we know, no linguistic parallel to this curious state of affairs.
The Internet is home to many inane debates, but this one is so particularly pointless that its very pointlessness becomes a source of fascination. Why the fury, and why is it directed exclusively at Americans, even though the word soccer is widely used in other anglophone countries such as Canada, Ireland, Australia and South Africa? Does anybody seriously expect Americans to relinquish the word “football” as the name of their most popular spectator sport?
The arguments marshaled in the debate fall into four categories:
- The classic fallacy of an argumentum ad populum: The majority of countries use either football or a derivative or translation of football, such as the German Fußball or the Spanish fútbol. Americans, deeply habituated to narratives of U.S. exceptionalism, shrug this one off easily.
- Literalism: Because the game consists largely of manipulating a ball with one’s feet, football is the only correct word. Frequently met with the equally dubious counter-assertion that American football is correctly named because the ball is a foot long.
- Argument by testosterone: Either association of football or American football is the true domain of real men, who by virtue of their superior masculinity have acquired ownership of the contested word.
- Argumentum ad hominem Americanum: Soccer is a bad word because it is an American word, and America is bad.
The facts are clear. Football originally referred to a great number of usually violent folk games, some played predominantly with the feet, others with the hands. In the 19th century, Britain, the United States, Ireland and Australia each formalized their own version.
Curiously, the word soccer only became anathema once Americans, who had been utterly indifferent to the game between the 1880s and the 1970s, started to take an interest. When the New York Cosmos acquired Pelé in 1975, the world noticed, and when the United States won the right to host the 1994 World Cup, fears that Americans would desecrate the game mounted, at a time when anti-Americanism in general was on the rise. Super-trolls such as Ann Coulter, who infamously claimed that soccer is un-American and “a sign of the nation’s moral decay,” haven’t helped matters.
There is a paradox at work here: The United States is ritually ripped for not sufficiently appreciating the world’s most beloved game, but any attempt to elevate its status in the United States threatens the rare and delicious opportunity to defeat, if not abjectly humiliate, the world’s superpower and to subsume the United States, for once, into the international community as just another country. As the French historian Odon Vallet wrote: “Football is the only factor of globalization that has escaped American hegemony. The world of cinema may be dominated by Hollywood and that of money by Wall Street, but planet football is barely North American at all.”
These days, the United States is certainly making its presence felt in the world of soccer: Together with Mexico and Canada, it has mounted the United Bid to host the 2026 World Cup, which David Beckham supports; a steady flow of aging stars such as Zlatan Ibrahimovic are gracing Major League Soccer; and the U.S. Justice Department has spearheaded the investigation and prosecution of of corrupt FIFA officials from around the world. Sensing a growing nervousness, perhaps, American officials go out of their way not to offend at least on the linguistic issue: In the 500-page United Bid document, the word “soccer” is only used if it appears in a proper name. Their most gracious concession, of course, may well have been the failure of the U.S. men’s team to qualify for this year’s competition.